On Mary, Advent, and me

This past Good Friday, my church held a reflective evening service filled with poetry, music, and meditation. One of the poems read was by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Screenshot 2017-04-16 16.38.05

It made me think back to Christmas, when I was six weeks pregnant, and discovered that being newly pregnant didn’t make me feel any closer to Mary than I usually did (which is to say, not very). I hadn’t necessarily expected to, as hearing Mary’s story read always left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more from Mary than the story always gave me; I wanted a Mary who spoke and doubted and maybe even railed against what was being asked of her, not a Mary who instantly acquiesced. I couldn’t relate to this pinnacle of womanhood, and honestly, sometimes that worried me. Knowing there was a clump of cells making their way to a baby inside of me didn’t magically change any of that.

But on Good Friday, I listened to this poem read while our baby girl kicked away inside me, reminding me of her undeniable and yet not-quite-real presence with every little jab and poke and flip. This past Lent was a season of uncertainty and vulnerability for me, as I seemed to receive troubling news every other time I visited my doctor, and I discovered the very real limitations pregnancy placed on my body and my life as a whole. I was so afraid we would lose her when I started bleeding at sixteen weeks (on Ash Wednesday–and my birthday–, which seemed a particularly cruel way to drive home how fleeting life is), and I was grateful every time I felt her kick and tell me she was still there, she was strong, she would be okay–and so would I. I held on to that through the long months that were to come.

And it hit me that Good Friday, and with that poem, how vulnerable this parenting and motherhood thing makes you. I didn’t sign up for our Maundy Thursday overnight vigil, but I had a vigil of my own, as that was also the week that pregnancy insomnia began. I spent a lot of time awake at night, thinking about new life and old life and the softness that was and is my body and the hard world outside. How are the two supposed to mix? Do you ever get used to it, as a mother, that the being you carried inside you and protected as best you could for nine months has to make its way into a world that will never be as kind as it should be? I’m guessing you don’t.

And now it’s Advent again. I still want to hear more from Mary. I still want to fill in the silences in her story with what I think she may have thought and felt and said. But Advent feels different to me this year, as I read and reflected on the Magnificat with my own baby in my arms, with my pregnancy still fresh in my memory. I’ve come to suspect that I was sold a bill of goods all those years, that what has always been told to me as meek obedience on Mary’s part was actually fierceness in disguise–a fierceness that the male gospel writers and the male preachers who first told me her story perhaps didn’t have eyes to see–a fierceness that carried her through her own Holy Week and beyond, and a fierceness born out of the softness and vulnerability that motherhood brings.

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three reflections on Sabbath

A couple weekends ago, Transfiguration held its annual parish retreat, up at the Bishop’s Ranch in Healdsburg, which is a lovely and particularly Episcopalian place to hold a retreat, nestled in the middle of wine country as it is. The theme was Sabbath, and we spent time in activity and conversation and reflection, thinking about all the different ways you can experience Sabbath: as rest and relaxation, but also in playfulness and silliness, community and solitude. These are mine.

I. On weekend mornings, growing up, my family would gather for breakfast. When we lived in California, we’d eat outside, venturing into the yard to pick an orange from the orange tree before returning to the picnic table. Much later, when we had moved to the Netherlands, we had a backyard with a little patio area in the back, and weather permitting (or, honestly, weather not permitting—my mother loves the outdoors and we would put on sweaters and join her, suffering more or less in silence), you would find us there. I’m pretty sure these were not all the kind of breakfasts memories are made of, as I’m also pretty sure there were plenty of arguments and tears and words said that perhaps needed to be said and perhaps did not need to be—that is how my family is. But we come together around the table.

I think of Christmas as my father’s holiday, and Easter as my mother’s. This may not at all be accurate, mind, but it’s a categorization my brain finds helpful, so, I run with it. I think of of Christmas as my dad’s and Easter as my mom’s, not because of any religious significance—both my parents are very lapsed Catholics that raised us with art, and music, and books, and science, and curiosity about the world around us, but not with religion—but because my father loves the magic of Christmas, the trees and carols and the presents you’ve picked out for each other. And my mother loves Easter breakfast and will load up the table with a million different little dishes and we’ll all have coffee and tea and fresh-squeezed orange juice and the butter will probably be shaped like a rabbit or there will be little fluffy chicks on the table. I distinctly remember feeling so homesick after skyping with my mom the first Easter I spent in Utah, because I had met Loel, and I knew I wasn’t going back to the Netherlands in any permanent capacity, as least for a good long while, and I knew this would mean I would not be sitting at my mother’s Easter table next year or the year after that, and I knew I would miss out.

When I converted and began to structure my life around church, all of us were still living at home and Sunday breakfasts were still happening. Every week, we’d say we’d start breakfast early enough so I could eat before church, and every week, something would happen and you would find me at nine o’clock, frantically biking to church, sometimes still with breakfast in one hand while I tried to pedal and breathe and eat at the same time. (It was good practice for weekday mornings, when I’d bike with my notes for that day’s French or Greek or Latin test in my one hand and half-eaten toast in the other.) I’d arrive feeling rushed and out of sorts and betwixt and between—no longer fully part of my family but also not an insider in this new community—as evidenced by the fact that I’d be the last in our pew at nine twenty (or, God forbid, nine-twenty-five, doing the shuffle of shame along with the other people too unrighteous to get to church at least fifteen minutes before the service began).

My family has found a good balance, I think, in accommodating my religious practices and keeping up old traditions. I usually attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, but not both, choosing to spend the other hours doing the things we always do—sing carols on Christmas Eve, squeeze orange juice in our pajamas on Christmas morning. We’ll pick out a music-filled late service for Christmas Eve, and one or all of them will come with me. Sabbath is where I first learned this balance—that sometimes I would pick church over family, and sometimes Sabbath meant skipping church and going camping, or to a museum, or listening to musicians play Bach with my dad, or sleeping late and eating breakfast in pajamas with my mother and my sisters. Sometimes I skip church and go adventuring with Loel, and sometimes Loel comes with me and sings the hymns but skips the prayers and the creed, and we laugh at the antics the kids get into together, and then stop at the board game and/or book store on the way home. It works, is what I mean, and it mostly works because Sabbath isn’t about rules and what you’re supposed to do, but a kind of reset and a way to practice what you preach and express the things you hold dear.

II. I know Sabbath is often supposed to be relaxing, and I try to leave it free. You’ll often find me on my bike on Sunday afternoons, cycling up the rolling hills of Portola Valley or Woodside, or on the wonderfully flat Bay Trail, or walking Josie, or at the library, or just sprawled on the couch, watching Jane the Virgin or NCIS or some weird documentary. But in a very important way, Sabbath isn’t relaxing for me. Sabbath is an interruption, and I think that is the way it should be.

I am an introvert. I am an introvert in so many ways, and Monday through Saturday I live an introverted life. I like it that way. I see friends, I see co-workers, I do not cut myself off from human contact, but after work most days? I read and I do puzzles and I go out on my bike by myself to recharge. I write, sometimes more successfully than otherwise. Loel and I go out for dinner and both bring a book (this sometimes puzzles the servers, and sometimes they love it). But on Sunday, I take a deep breath and enter into community.

In a lot of ways, the Episcopal Church is perfect for an intellectual introvert like me. I love liturgy. I love that everything we do has a meaning (even though I would be the first to admit I still need to read up on why, exactly, we do what we do). I love that some of our hymns celebrate nature, and others celebrate learning and knowledge and books, and I love that we are sometimes given complex music, and sometimes we sing a children’s song and find meaning in that. I love knowing that after the prayers of the people we move into the Eucharist and after the Eucharist follows the post-communion blessing and that the sermon will be short and meaningful and that I can participate in a way that works for me. Except for two things: the passing of the peace, and the Eucharist itself. Both terrify me and both have me coming back for more.

The passing of the peace is the most terrible thing you can do to an introverted, shy, socially awkward newcomer, because that is the moment you see community happening, and that is the moment you have to plug yourself into it and greet people you don’t know but that are still your brothers and sisters in Christ. (Honestly, usually I greet those directly around me but am too shy to move beyond my pew like other people do, freely hugging people on the other side of the room. How other people do that so confidently is beyond me). The other is the Eucharist, when we all move up to the front and receive the bread and wine from those presiding—there is no hiding in the pews there either. I’ve gone to churches where you receive communion from the priest, and to churches where it’s passed down the pews. The latter is safe, and that is why I prefer the former. This may only make sense if you’re made like me, but to receive something as meaningful and grace-filled and complicated like the Eucharist directly from someone’s hands, someone who knows you and will greet you by name, and then to walk back to your seat, tasting the bread and wine…it breaks down all my walls and defenses and makes me both confront my need for human connection and feel so, so loved. At that moment, I’m not thinking about the roles I have (grad student, wife, sister, daughter, teacher, nerdling), I’m not letting myself be defined by those roles or worrying about what I’ll do when one or the other falls away. I just am. It is, I think, the closest I get to feeling like enough, like I can just be present for a moment without worrying or planning or trying to control what is going to happen tomorrow or next week or next year.

And then Monday I go right back to my overachieving, type A ways, but if I’m really lucky, I can remember that feeling of being God-oriented, of being part of a story bigger than myself, and let go a little bit. Sabbath is the interruption that shocks me right out of my comfort zone and into a community trying to be his people in the world.

III. In some ways, I think Christianity itself is an interruption. In a theological sense, sure, in that the way I read it, Christianity is about siding with the marginalized and subverting existing power structures and feeding the hungry and giving voice to those that don’t have one but need to be heard. I’m a liberal for a lot of reasons, and one of them is my religion. When done properly, I believe that religion interrupts our cozy, comfortable little lives, in which everyone is like us and we can ignore those who aren’t. Religion forces me to see the divine in everyone I meet, whether it’s Loel or my best friends (easy) or that one co-worker I’d love to banish to the moon (harder) or a strict complementarian promoting patriarchy with simplistic theology (ugh, don’t get me started) or even Donald Trump proclaiming hate and walls and the gospel of greed (so hard. I fail at this, most of the time). Christianity is about seeing that we are all Other, and therefore no one is. N.T. Wright once wrote, “all are equal at the foot of the cross,” and that is the kind of theology that keeps me coming back for more.

But Christianity is also an interruption on a deeply personal level. I have tried so many times to quit church, to stop going and declare it all irrelevant to my life and move on and become spiritual but not religious or agnostic or a None. Church can trigger me and bring up all kinds of deeply traumatic and panic-inducing memories, and I have left the service crying more than once, or fled out the back hoping no one would notice. Some days, I want to proclaim that I quit and I will find meaning somewhere else (most likely in a library because forget Disneyland, those are the happiest places on earth). But I don’t. Because it keeps pulling me back. There are enough Sundays when I wonder whether I should be saying the Nicene Creed, whether I believe enough of it to say it, when I wonder if I would ever pass a litmus test if it was administered, when I wonder whether my baptism still counts since my theology has shifted so radically and I’ve changed so much since 2004. And then I take communion, and realize it doesn’t matter, because I am here and I am showing up to do the work and I am trying to be God’s hands and feet in the world and that it is worth it and that I hope I never stop. Christianity is an interruption in that it confronts me with my brokenness and moves me towards grace and wholeness. It—God—asks too much of me, sometimes, and sometimes it—God—gives me so much that I can barely hold the grace and the brokenness in one body and I marvel at it all.

on this Good Friday

Gethsemane, by Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.
The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.
Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move, maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

 

(another favorite Holy Week poem here.)

Lent

I’m giving up “I can’t” for Lent.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, if you’re not blessed with a perfectionist, neurotic personality and an incredible amount of insecurities, like me. But the truth is, I find myself saying “oh, I can’t” a lot, when a more accurate phrase would be, “I don’t know how,” or “I’m not very good at this yet,” or “I’m afraid to fail so I just won’t try.” I like being in my comfort zone, which is a kind of small space, when I think about it–especially when I think about the kick-ass things I am capable of when I put my mind to it (like going for that PhD, even when it meant I had to move to Germany for it, or applying for the Tanner fellowship, even if that meant moving again, and starting over, again, by myself, again). In many ways, I am an incredibly strong woman, so why do I limit myself so often with that “I can’t?”

So I suppose I’m giving up that comfort zone up for Lent. This is not a yes experiment, and you will not see me sky diving or switching careers or anything. It’s attempt to spend forty days not limiting myself–or at least not out of fear. It’s an attempt to figure out what I really mean when I say “I can’t”: I won’t? I don’t want to? I don’t know how to? I’m scared to try?

Rachel Held Evans has forty ideas for Lent over at her blog, and she suggests the following questions to ask yourself, including

2. Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of loving God with my whole heart or loving my neighbor as myself? How do I address that issue over the next 40 days?

5. How do I want Lent 2014 to affect not only the next 40 days but also the next 40 years?

And when I think about it, well, getting rid of those self-imposed restrictions that limit how I see myself, and by extension, others around me, and even God, seems to fit the bill pretty well.

If you’re giving something up this year, tell me what in the comments. If you’re still looking for a practice, I’d recommend the post I linked to for some very accessible ideas!

good morning, good morning, good morning

A month or so ago, I met with one of the priests in my local church to discuss confirmation/reception into the Episcopal Church. I felt much better about my presumed heterodoxy after that meeting, and came away with a few book recommendations as well. She also mentioned the following poem to me. It’s lovely and especially fitting for a Monday morning in which I had to drag myself out of bed.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Hello, sun.

this and that, the ephemeral edition

–Remember back when I got word I had been granted the Tanner fellowship, and I was so excited about the library privileges and private office that I said I didn’t care they weren’t offering me health benefits? Well, my sister E. pointed out the other day that I may have jinxed myself then and there, as I have never had as many health-related issues as this year, nor sent as many claims to my insurance. Oops.

–I am definitely not Babble’s target audience, as I saw a post on what to wear for Valentine’s Day, and I only thought, wait, Valentine’s Day has a dress code? Why do I not know that?

–I tried out two new coffee places last weekend. With other people. (That deserves it’s own sentence, grammatically incorrect as it is.) Look at me, being all social and stuff! Also, dad, if you ever feel like coming back to Salt Lake, I now know an abundance of places to go for coffee. (That should tempt him.)

–Sunday morning, in church, the priest offered a lovely homily on breaking down the walls that make for an us-vs-them mentality, and gave a shout out for economic and marriage equality in the process. I’m generally not very good at actually listening to the sermon, but the Episcopalian homilies are so nice and short even my attention span can handle it. (That’s saying a lot. The ‘hey look, a squirrel’ thing is very applicable to me.)

–The snow has melted here, and the weather is lovely and mild, and I’m using my bike again instead of relying solely on Trax. I’m knocking on wood here, as it’s only February and people have been warning me it can snow till unbelievably late in the year here, but it’s nice while it lasts.

–Tomorrow I’m indulging my inner nerd and going to see the Utah Symphony play at Abravanel Hall. Why? Because the concert is called The Magic of Harry Potter and there’s no way I’m going to miss that.

on nativity scenes

I’ve wanted a nativity scene for years. I’ve put off buying one, though, mostly because I’m never home for Christmas but usually at my mom’s or my dad’s for the three-day Christmas stretch (or, ahem, partnered with someone who does not see the merit in Christmas decorations). I saw these the other day and instantly fell in love.

Minimal-Nativity-Set-01-685x489

Minimal-Nativity-Set-05

both images via 22 Words

And then I saw this post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog, talking about the difficulty of finding a “fair-trade, biblically-accurate, ethnically-realistic, reasonably-priced, child-safe” nativity scene. And while obviously RHE is spoofing this a little bit, it’s actually one of the reasons I liked the minimalistic sets so much–no dominant representation of what the Holy Family looked like, and when it comes to the colored blocks one, not even labels marking those as present. If only because, in our family, it would make perfect sense for a dinosaur to be there, too.